Review of “Sister Elisabeth Fedde” by Gracia Grindal

Gracia Grindal, Sister Elisabeth Fedde: “To Do the Lord’s Will”: Elisabeth Fedde and the Deaconess Movement among the Norwegians in America (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2014), 382 pp.

Until this book appeared, the sources of information on the pioneering deaconess Elisabeth Fedde (1850–1921) were few and far between. Part of her diary from part of her time in Brooklyn can be found online; there are a few scholarly articles about her, mostly in journals catering to the relatively restricted world of Norwegian-American studies; and there’s a romanticized and fictionalized account of her life from 1953 called The Borrowed Sister. Kelly-Ray Meritt wrote a great introduction to her life and work based on these sources for the summer 2013 issue of LF. But now fans of Elisabeth have the whole story, recounted in loving detail by Gracia Grindal.

To review the basics: Elisabeth Fedde, born on Christmas Day, lost both of her parents at an early age. Raised by kindly fellow Christians, she early on heard a call to join the incipient deaconess movement, growing in Norway due to impulses from the German motherhouses in Kaiserswerth and Neuendettelsau and the growing fame of Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. She joined the Lovisenberg Deaconess Institute and trained for both physical and spiritual care, honing her craft through periods spent in private homes, state hospitals, and a stint north of the Arctic Circle. After a number of years, her brother-in-law pleaded with her to come and work among the indigent Norwegian immigrants in New York and the generally diseased Norwegian sailors putting into port there. Despite the lack of a blessing or official recognition from Lovisenberg, she went. For fifteen years she looked after countless people in desperate need of help, mostly but not only Norwegians, all the while building a deaconess institute in Brooklyn and helping to start a second one in Minneapolis. Between the backbreaking labor without much help or rest and the mare’s nest of church politics, her own health was ultimately destroyed. She returned to Norway, married her childhood sweetheart, and spent her last years as a farm wife with occasional opportunities to advise and help in local charitable organizations.

It’s not so much the broad sweep of her life that compels, though the picture of 19th century immigration is a vivid one, and it’s quite touching that Ole Slettebo waited all those years for a middle-aged and arthritic Elisabeth to come home and be his bride. It’s rather the details of her ministry amidst the kind of conditions that polite society did not talk about at that time, and the steel of Elisabeth’s own character, that make this story compelling. No one less than a visionary with a backbone of iron and an unwavering commitment to doing the Lord’s work could have pulled off her mission: going into disease- and filth-ridden homes to clean up the residents; finding homes for orphaned children; seeing unwed mothers through childbirth; giving second and third and fourth chances to alcoholics; treating very young sailors for syphilis; intervening in cases of domestic and sexual abuse.

Grindal’s book fills in much of the hitherto missing picture. She has tracked down many lost or untranslated documents from Elisabeth’s own life, considerably deepening our picture of her. She also provides the invaluable historical context to see where and why exactly Elisabeth was a pioneer. On one side of things, it’s pretty depressing to view petty church politics and stubborn misunderstandings in as glaring detail in the past as we know them to be in the present. So much for the hallowed glow of the days of yore. And while battlefield slaughter, court intrigue, plagues, and arranged marriages between royalty of the farther past were probably pretty dreadful to live through, they’re rather more interesting to read about than the succession of board meetings and committee reports that characterize the negotiations of our modern bureaucratic era.

On the other hand, what makes Elisabeth’s story and era especially compelling is their lying right on the cusp of women taking public roles on a wider scale. Grindal illuminates the awkwardness and missteps on all sides trying to figure out just how to deal with a consecrated public office for a woman who had a competency and an authority in administration that had hitherto belonged only to men. Naturally, sexism played a role in the inevitable clashes, but there was also the simple fact that nobody had a script of any kind (affirming or insulting) for negotiating this new social space. Elisabeth, her sister deaconesses, and the male leaders, politicians, and pastors had to make it up as they went along.

As if that weren’t already complex enough—a woman in public, and an officeholder in the church—is the fact that the deaconess movement created the job of nurse, almost immediately to see it secularized. This aspect of the story reminded me of Bonhoeffer’s remarks about the world shoving God aside to get on with its own business. It’s hard to regret the rise of the nursing profession on such a broad scale, but sad nevertheless that its spiritual roots have become irrelevant. Nursing until the nineteenth century was the job of the ignorant (and, it seems, the habitually drunk); it received neither training nor honor. Even as it evolved into something respectable and competent, it still never commanded the respect accorded to physicians. The first to undertake the role of the modern nurse were women with religious commitments and strong senses of call, but even as they did what no one else was willing to do, somehow they seemed to fall between two stools. Neither physicians nor pastors, deaconesses found that people were grateful for their work even while being confused by it. Elisabeth established a powerhouse institution that had basically one generation to flourish before the decline set in. Today “deaconess” and “nurse” no longer bear much relationship to one another at all. Elisabeth truly lived at a unique moment in history with no precedent and little long-term effect, at least in the role of deaconess itself.

The aforementioned article in LF appeared in the hagiography department, and fittingly Grindal takes a moment to reflect on Elisabeth Fedde as a saint (she is remembered on the Lutheran and Episcopal Church calendars on February 25). Grindal’s remarks very much fit this journal’s understanding of sanctity: “She was not particularly saintly, but then few saints are. Saints are difficult people, driven human beings who have a vision of what God wants them to do and what they can do. They brook no opposition and go forward, eager to do the Lord’s will, regardless of cost to themselves” (329). We could stand to have more of these difficult people among us. Let us hope that reading Sister Elisabeth’s story, and those of other saints, will open up such unique, visionary vocations in many more Christians today.

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